Religious Institutions and Modern Society

“Hang” on to your seats, Hang Togetherites. We’re going to experience a Great Conjunction this week, as I’m about to propose a unified field theorem that ties together the three lines of discussion that are emerging on HT:

1) Religion and the social order. We have been asking to what extent the idea that every human person has intrinsic dignity is dependent on religion, rather than on the more universal bases of reason and experience. As a larger share of the population goes in for a highly individualizing and subjective Romanticism, Karen is challenging us to think about the role of religious institutions in shaping society.

2) The church and the poor. We have agreed that the church can’t wait for the welfare state to get out of the way; it must follow the lead of our Mormon friends and create a superior system of poverty alleviation that runs parallel to the welfare state. In a series of posts, Kyle has been giving us a front line pastor’s perspective on what that means.

3) Political theory. In another series of posts, Dan has been laying out his perspective on the most basic ideas underlying the liberal-democratic order, such as free enterprise and rights.

Ready to have your minds blown? Here we go.

As I have already commented over on Karen’s post, the rise of Romantic individualism has led to a decline in understanding of the social nature of religion among those who are not Romantic individualists. Rousseau understood very well that the chief danger to his project was not the abstract idea of “Christianity,” which could be refashioned through a judicious reinterpretation of its meaning, but the institution of the church. “The Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar” is really aimed not at displacing “Christianity” but at displacing the church. It attacks Christian doctrine, and in that sense it does attack Christianity, but the goal is to change the meaning of “Christianity” to something else rather than to overthrow it and set up “natural religion” in its place. What Rousseau does very much want to overthrow is the church. Hence in the Social Contract a politically controlled “civil religion” replaces the independent church.

The long-delayed spoils of his victory are today’s “nones.” They are not really in rebellion against Christianity; they don’t know enough about it to be in rebellion against it. They mostly believe in God and have what we would recognize as spiritual lives – not Christian ones, but not militantly anti-Christian ones, either.

What they are in rebellion against is institutions. I think numerous people have made this point, but I will quote the ever-valuable Ross Douthat:

The liberal image of a non-churchgoing American is probably the “spiritual but not religious” seeker, or the bright young atheist reading Richard Dawkins. But the typical unchurched American is just as often an underemployed working-class man, whose secularism is less an intellectual choice than a symptom of his disconnection from community in general. [ea]

See Charles Murray’s last book for more on this.

Here comes the unified field theorem that will bring about the Great Conjunction. I see two challenges arising from the disconnection of the nones from institutions. The first connects to Kyle’s discussion of the church needing a new approach to poverty; the second connects to Dan’s discussion of the political ideas necessary to liberal democracy.

The immediate challenge is to the religious freedom of we who practice a social religion. The nones fail to understand that other people’s religions – ours, for instance – presuppose institutional embodiment. Our religion cannot be what it is if it is only a matter of personal belief. So the nones disallow the claims of our institutions to be what they are, not out of hostility but out of an inability to grasp that something important is at stake in those claims. They have no frame of reference even to understand the nature of our claim, much less to make that claim plausible.

In the lawsuits over Obamacare, the administration has asserted the theory that a profit-making business or a hospital or a school cannot be said to exist primiarly for a religious purpose or mission. If the courts endorse this claim, Christianity has been made illegal. Christianity cannot be what it is if the total primacy of God’s claim on our lives and the mission he has given us in the world is not permitted to achieve institutional expression in all areas of life, rather than simply in churches narrowly defined. This is not to say that all Christians must attend distinctively Christian schools or work in distinctively Christian businesses; far from it. However, if the formation of such institutions is illegal, Christianity is illegal.

Who has a solution to such a dire predicament? Kyle Ferguson, of course!

While there is much important work to be done on this issue, the most immediate need is for Christians to start demonstrating the unique value of Christian institutions. Kyle is exploring one of the ways we can do that. Christian nonprofit minitries and (just as important) Christians in for-profit business can beat the welfare state at its own game. The ministries can provide the poor something no non-Christians are currently providing them: personal development to help them become good workers; and Christian businesspeople can provide another thing no one else is currently providing: job-creating businesses that are ready and willing to go into depressed areas and employ the poor, providing them the dignity of work and self-support.

But it won’t be just poverty. What can Christian institutions do to provide unique contributions to the flourishing of our non-Christian neighbors and society at large in arts and entertainment? In business? In neighborhoods? Even in politics?

That, however, is only the short-term need. The long-term need is not to rescue the church from the threat of persecution, but to rescue liberal democracy from the threat of moral fragmentation.

Religions and quasi-religions (let’s not reopen the debate over what counts as a religion) can’t be sustained without institutional embodiment. This is just a basic feature of human behavior. We need to have institutions that teach us, structure our behavior and hold us accountable. And since liberal democracy depends on a virtuous citizenry, in the long run it depends on religious and quasi-religious institutions.

Romantic individualism has a contradiction at its core: it is not as individualistic as it thinks it is. It has always sought, and achieved, institutional embodiment – all while denying to itself that it seeks this. The two chief places it has been embodied are in the state - hence the need for a state-controlled “civil religion” in the Social Contract - and in educational institutions. The near-total triumph of Romantic individualism in these two sectors has coincided with a continual contraction of actual liberty for the individual, as both these types of institutions have become more rigid in imposing Romantic individualism as orthodoxy.

Rousseau foresaw all this and laid it out plain and simple in the Social Contract – those who do not voluntarily find their freedom in submission to the general will must be “forced to be free.” Those words are widely misunderstood and abused – Rousseau was no totalitarian – but the indifference to the individuality of the individual was very real and deliberately chosen.

Who has a solution to such a dire predicament? Dan Kelly, of course!

What will be needed in the long run is a restoration of the idea – which predominated at the American founding – that participation in and voluntary financial support for religious institutions is a necessary virtue of good citizenship. We can’t impose this by law consistent with religious freedom; but in the long run we also can’t sustain religious freedom unless society once again sets the expectation that all good and decent citizens will be part of religious institutions. This principle must be incorporated into the premises of liberal democracy at the same level as free enterprise, rights, etc. Get to work on that, Dan.

A parting question for Karen: can we extend this principle to include quasi-religious institutions? Would that be sufficient for liberal democracy, or does it have to be “religion proper”?

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